Marine Biodiversity Exposed Top European marine biodiversity experts in Lecce, Italy

Marine biodiversity was ‘exposed’ on a number of different levels in Lecce, Italy 8 th-11 th May 2006, where MarBEF (Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning) a European Network of Excellence held its third general assembly in a ‘conference style’ meeting. On the agenda were talks by members on their research varying from ‘The paradox of the plankton’ and ‘The role of native and/or invasive ecosystem engineers in explaining biodiversity’ through to ‘Marine Biological Valuation: an integrated view on nature’s intrinsic value‘.

Over 1600 new marine species a year

Participants heard Phillipe Bouchet say how “the number of marine species can now be estimated to be as low as 230,000 species” (give or take 20,000 species) with over 1,600 marine species being discovered each year.

Future for marine biodiversity network debated

A round table discussion on “Towards the conceptual unification of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning” rounded off 2 days of presentations with lively contributions from the floor. Participants over the course of the assembly heard over 30 talks on the three different research themes within MarBEF (Patterns in Biodiversity, Socio-economics of Biodiversity and Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning) followed by a poster session that incorporated over 40 posters.

Dr. Adriana Vella, Ph.D. Conservation Biologist from the Department of Biology, University of Malta was invited to participate as an associate member of MarBEF and has presented results of local works from her Conservation Biology Research Group: One such project focused on the first research scientific project on elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) around the Maltese Islands which had also identified a new species in these waters and; molecular genetics research results on various marine species to assess populations’ genetic diversity and the environmental impacts on DNA damage.

Elasmobranch Research

The first detailed scientific and field work focusing on Elasmobranches (rays and sharks) was one of two Maltese research projects’ results presented at the MarBEF conference and general meeting. The Elasmobranch results were presented by researchers Jesmond Dalli and Adriana Vella of the Conservation Biology Research Group, Biology Department of the University of Malta. This work considered the elasmobranch species from various perspectives: the regional fisheries; distribution; and life history, in order to provide a first time detailed and scientific recognition of the way each elasmobranch species may be affected by local human pressures. During the course of this study the species Centroscymnus coelolepis (Portuguese dogfish) was recorded for the first time in Maltese fisheries and waters. This species is a deep water dwelling species, found at depths of 200 to 3500m. Its max length is 120cm but usually found at 90cm. This same research group has continued on shark research while sustaining work on other local species requiring conservation research.

The aim of this conservation research project was to go beyond the necessary listing of species encountered in fisheries landing sites (with the discovery of a species not reported ever before) and to look at the life-stages being affected for each species and with different fishing gear. These questions need to be answered if sustainable management is indeed to be implemented locally. Apart from fishing impacts, the abundance of different species around the Maltese coasts was also studied through scuba diving surveys undertaken year round.

Molecular Genetics Research

Another area of research developed in the Maltese Islands by the Conservation Biology Research Group, led by Adriana Vella, involved the utilization of molecular genetics techniques from protein to microsatellite electrophoresis techniques for the detailed study of local or regionally distributed marine species’ populations, in order to assess the genetic diversity of these populations and thus their potential to adapt to changing environments. Though the sea is thought to provide no limits to the distribution and diversity of population genetics, this is not found to be so locally, where indeed some of the species’ populations investigated are found to have low to moderate genetic diversity and thus makes local conservation management of our species important.

Other Molecular techniques that looks at the status of DNA damage, is another area used by this research group, to investigate how various local habitats may be affecting marine species down to their cellular DNA structure and function. The specific method utilized here is the Comet assay technique. The significant presence of DNA damage in a marine species at various Maltese coastal areas indicated that this technique may be a good indicator measuring tool in investigating the overall habitat quality and genetic integrity of the individuals making up populations and species around our coasts.

MarBEF, funded by the European Union, consists of 83 European marine institutes from 24 countries, and is a platform to integrate and disseminate knowledge and expertise on marine biodiversity, with links to researchers, industry, stakeholders and the general public. For further information on MarBEF and its research activities please visit the website http://www.marbef.org/